“fill Yourself Up, Clean Your Plate”


Eggs were important all week long. An egg laid on Good Friday was a real treasure and could advantageously be eaten on that day and its shell saved to drink water from on Easter morning. On that day, as soon as the children had found the bunny’s nest, eggs appeared in enormous quantities. Some were made into “Easter birds”—charming, toothpick creatures; others were stuck on an Easter-egg tree. But most were eaten. Boys meeting on the street “picked eggs”; that is, each would thump his hard-boiled egg, at the base, against the other’s. The egg with the weaker shell would crack and be claimed and eaten by the winner.

The Easter egg and the Christmas tree will no doubt always survive (along with Santa Claus, if he can be rescued from the Chamber of Commerce). But most of the holiday customs which the gay Dutch introduced with their feasts have long since disappeared. And looking ahead, it seems clear that it is their more self-denying relatives, the Plain People, who will do most to keep alive the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine in its full glory for generations to come.

The Amish, in particular, make it part of their religion to farm. They are not allowed, except under rare circumstances such as physical disability, to earn their livelihood in any other way. With a tenacious judgment—and it is hard to see how they are mistaken—they realize that if their way of living is to survive, it must almost totally exclude the twentieth century. They discourage educating their children above the eighth grade and prefer them to attend their own one-teacher schools with a privy in the yard. They have no telephones in their homes, indeed no electricity at all, and use no tractors on their land. (“The tractor, it don’t give no manure.”) It is almost unheard-of for an Amish family to purchase food from the store. Frozen foods would not keep, and no Amish housewife would think of feeding her man “outen a can.” Their own products are far better anyway. Just as in the old days, an Amish farm is a food factory, preparing good foods the whole year through. Any surplus will bring a good price from “the fancy” at a farmers’ market.

To enforce their separateness from the world, the Amish will not only excommunicate a backslider but “shun” him completely—even in the marital relationship. (It was over the necessity for this stern point of discipline that the Amish separated from the other Mennonites in Switzerland, some 270 years ago.) However, they have other, more genial methods for helping each generation in turn to keep in the old paths. A newly married couple, for example, will not take a wedding trip “into the world,” but will embark in their buggy on a series of honeymoon visits throughout the neighborhood. In each house they are made welcome and feasted, and from each housewife in turn the bride learns more and more of the arts which go into preparing a feast. In Amish hands the old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine should be safe for many years to come.

Yet it is only fair to say that, as of this writing, many gay Dutch still cherish this heritage too. A few miles north of Lititz, for example, a venerable log tavern can be found filled with neighborhood families eating nothing but Pennsylvania Dutch food and drinking beer, both in substantial amounts. A visitor will be warmly welcomed and invited to come back next day for an “all-day raffle.” (The prizes will be live turkeys and Black Angus cattle, the price of one dollar will include raffle ticket, Dutch soup, and free beer with eggs pickled in beet vinegar.) And in a store window a sign advertising a church fair recommends, “Bring container to take home soup.” Such soups there will be! Corn soup with popcorn floating on top, pretzel soup, calf’s-liver soup, pea soup “thick enough to stand on.”

This is still a country of abundance, where good people make good food and lots of it.